The summer before I began my year of study at the Christian college, I spend most of the summer in Jamaica as part of a Canadian Army Cadet exchange program. A large group of us from all across Canada had been selected as a result of our performance on various tests and military activities. While it didn’t raise much money for college, it was a great way to spend the summer.
Most of the guys on the trip were looking forward to one thing–the cheap and easy to obtain alcohol. Jamaican rules on alcohol consumption were somewhat relaxed at that point and everyone on the exchange knew how cheap and easy it was to obtain. I didn’t drink alcohol so was more interested in the chance to see another culture, which made me a bit strange in the eyes of the other guys. However, it didn’t make me an outcaste since I didn’t bother spending any time telling them about the evils of alcohol.
We became friends and generally enjoyed being together but as is always the case, some of us were better friends that others. One member of the group, Ken, and I spent a lot of time together. He drank alcohol heavily and frequently–and it was clear that his alcohol use didn’t begin with the trip to Jamaica. Looking back now, I realize that he was a 17 year old alcoholic. I never did get all the details but learned enough to realize that the alcohol provided him with a way to deal with some pretty difficult life issues. We would talk and laugh and joke and he would carry on with life like all the rest of us–but then at least a couple of times a week, he would finish a pint of rum and space out for a while. He was never belligerent, never aggressive, never obnoxious–he would just space out and the next day, he would be fine.
So, I went from there to college, where the majority of the student body openly and clearly made it plain that alcohol was an evil, disgusting thing that destroyed people and those who used it in any way shape or form were on the way to hell. In the black and white thinking of many, alcohol and those who used it were one and the same–both alcohol and those who used it were to be avoided and condemned. There was no other way–to do anything but condemn and avoid opened the door to following them right straight to hell.
I listened–most of it I had heard before. But as I listened, I thought of Ken. There was no question that he drank alcohol. There was no question that alcohol had a major hold on his life. But I simply couldn’t condemn Ken. It wasn’t just because I like him and we got along well together. It was because I saw beyond the alcohol to the real person, someone who had great potential that was being stifled not by his use of alcohol but by the factors in his life that drove him to the alcohol.
I began to realize that condemning alcohol wouldn’t help Ken. Condemning Ken wouldn’t help Ken. If all the alcohol in the world were removed, Ken would still have a major problem and would likely find something to help him avoid the problem. Alcohol was red herring in the Ken story–something flashy to catch our attention but which really wasn’t the real issue.
In short, my exposure to black and white thinking coupled with my experience with people like Ken was forcing me to look at the vast grey blur that is real life. Black and white solutions may exist in some times and places–but more often than not, life is seriously filled with grey situations and realities that aren’t dealt with by the simple application of a black and white formula.
Ken’s problem wasn’t really that he drank alcohol–his problem was the life situation that forced a 17 year old to become an alcoholic in order of cope. The grey reality was and is that in order to really help Ken, Ken would have to be the focus, not the alcohol. And as long as we focused on the alcohol, we couldn’t help Ken.
While it would sometimes be nice if life were as black and white as some believers want it to be, the truth is that life is grey and black and white answers can do more harm than good in the grey reality that we live in.
May the peace of God be with you.